1996 Commencement Address - Of Hatred and Bridges

Commencement 1996
Tom Gerety

You know all too well now the travails of scholarship: the all nighter, the tremors of caffeine, the sense that footnotes are the inventions of evil professors and that grades--particularly on senior theses--are inherently unjust. Still, you may recall at least some joy in the enterprise. Among the joys of study, discovery is surely the greatest. You go along, reading, or talking, or brewing in the laboratory, and then, all of a sudden, you find something that you did not know was there--and that no one or next to no one knew. That it was there all along, covered up, forgotten, unnoticed is a condition of discovery. "To discover," as Wallace Stevens put it well, "is not to invent." It is not a creation outside of you, but one within you, the creation of knowledge in its most palpable form.

The humblest of discoveries for most of us at Amherst has been books. "Have you seen the new book on this?" "Have you read so and so; it's close to your topic." Professors, if they do nothing else, point the way (along the path of their own reading) to discoveries they have made and that you may make in your turn.

When I was a senior in college, steeped in the ancient Greeks and Hegel and Marx, an anthropology professor of mine, someone who had hoped that I would major in his subject, told me to read a book by one of the great anthropologists of his youth. The book, when I found it, was a small set of essays called The Primitive World and its Transformations by Robert Redfield. To me at least, it was a great discovery. It seemed to bring together my interest in moral philosophy with an interest in culture, as lived in small, often isolated villages. What fascinated Redfield above all was the tension between the accepted ways of any given culture, its own sense of right and wrong, and the more universal or cosmopolitan pull of certain ideals found everywhere in human beings.

One of the great stories of the book is of the young Pawnee Chief Petalesharoo, and his rejection of the traditions of an annual human sacrifice to the Morning Star. Petalesharoo's father had called on his fellow tribesmen to give up the practice; but this group of Loup Pawnee refused to stop, believing it would jeopardize the harvest. Then, around 1818, Petalesharoo stepped forward, with a young captive already bound to a post, and said that either he would die or she would go free. Stunned, if not necessarily convinced, his tribesmen stood back as he untied her, put her on his packhorse, and rode off with her to set her free among her own people.

Petalesharoo's deed is not one that we can ever fully fathom or describe: it comes to us in second-hand reports, from English-speaking scouts in the frontier territory, where he and his people were in retreat from an agonizing conquest. What stands out, nonetheless, is his courage: He rebels against an inherited tradition of hatred. He refuses to participate, or to allow others to continue, needless cruelty against ethnic enemies. He offers to die to save another whom he may not have known and whom he had been taught to despise. In doing what he did--in acting on what must have been his own moral discovery of the uselessness of hatred--he exiled himself from a smaller world to a larger one, a larger one that had no certain place for him.

This exile, this passage from the small world to the big is, in a sense, the great human story of learning, from Adam and Eve on down. All of us go out, time and again, from the worlds of our mothers and fathers, from our families, from our schools, from our colleges and countries. What we go out to is a bigger world made up of smaller worlds, like our own, but worlds less and less sheltered from one another, more now than ever as travel and trade pull us all into one world economy and one world history. It is in and through discovery, through learning about other worlds and the limits of our own, that the story renews itself and draws us in.

As you go out from here, learning and discovering as you go, I worry that we have said too little about the one thing that Petalesharoo had to unlearn: hatred.

Despite the breadth of our curriculum, and the many courses that touch on prejudice and discrimination, we may not in the end have said enough to you about hating, the fierce emotion that eats up not only lives but nations, small worlds as well as large. You leave us, in the small world, for a larger world in which hatred almost prevails. Sometimes I am not sure we have prepared you for it, much less prepared you to do something about it.

It is easy for us humans to hate, it seems. It comes to us naturally: it comes over us in anger even towards those we love. Early on, we learn to say that we hate the one who has left us out in a game or wrecked the sand tower we made. No one who has reared a child will not have heard the tearful rebuke of frustration, "I hate you, Daddy; I hate you, Mommy."

Hatred as frustration--and, in particular, as the frustration of love--is a simple, powerful and engulfing emotion, one that we all know in ourselves and in others, even as little children. It causes us to hurt one another; from time to time it causes us to kill one another. It wells up in us as rage--and then, almost always, it subsides. Nowhere can we escape from it for long, and certainly not in a college campus like this one. Of this form of hatred--the hot hatred of rage--you had plenty of experience long before you came to Amherst; and you knew it here as well, in an incident in the dorm or an exchange on the field. But there is a deeper, more enduring strain in hatred that can hold it in place when emotions go cold. Call it cold hatred, the hatred that calculates and then acts.

When I was 4 or 5, my two older brothers had a fight in the newly ploughed dirt of the cornfield next to our house. I remember the bright sun of spring on the dark, soft earth in which you could not run because your shoes sank into the moist dirt. Pierce was 9 or 10, I guess, and Peter a year and a half younger. They must have been enraged at one another to be willing to go down onto the ground fighting. I have no recollection at all of how it began or what grudge or grievance was behind it. There was a hurried, awkward struggle, flailing arms and legs and torsoes squared off against one another. Suddenly Pierce sat on Peter's chest, his arms stretched out to pin his younger brother's arms to the ground. Peter grumbled but wouldn't surrender. Pierce shouted, "Give up; give up." I and two or three younger kids watched in silence--and dread.

Then I quietly stepped up to where Peter's head lay in the ground and, saying nothing, twice kicked dirt at his mouth. Pierce told me to get away. Peter spat and blinked but otherwise barely acknowledged what I had done.

I ran away to the house and hid out somewhere upstairs.

I'm not sure that I hated Peter at all when I kicked the dirt at him: I was by no means caught up in the hot surge of emotion that had so suddenly overtaken him and Pierce. In fact, as I recall it now, I and the other little children there with me were terrified as much of the rage we saw as of the actual shoves and punches exchanged by my two older brothers. Yet seeing Peter down, and momentarily powerless, I saw a chance to get back at him and a chance, for a time, to get away with it.

The desire for vengeance is understandable: Peter and I didn't fight all the time; he had better things to do with his time than feud with a kid four years younger. But when we fought--when I challenged him--he responded with brutal efficiency by folding his middle finger into a small, tight triangle and jabbing it hard into my solar plexus, leaving me writhing on the ground unable, for a few seconds, to breathe.

What interests me now in this episode out of memory is not the passion of it, for there was almost none. It is the peculiarly truncated rationality I felt: "I will get back at him; now; I will avenge myself."

I must have known that it could not possibly end there and that I was doing myself no lasting good. For Pierce, Peter, and the younger children there, what I had done was a breach of every backyard canon of honor and fair-fighting. Peter would catch up with me sooner or later, exacting a retribution at least as grievous as the injuries that made me yearn for vengeance.

But for now he was powerless; Pierce was busy keeping him down; for a few moments no one could check my own desire to hurt and humiliate him. Our brief history as brothers had taught me his power and his own coolly rational methods with me; he hit me when he pleased and more or less as he pleased. The punch to the solar plexus was simply the most effective technique for him, leaving me powerless to retaliate, as ever, but also powerless to tattle or even scream. So I wanted my revenge; here was my chance; "take it and run," I said to myself.

I had other playground fights as a kid. I resented a teacher or two. And I've exchanged angry words with colleagues or strangers. (Once, at 16, after football practice, I took a swing at someone who would grow up to be the Director of the Five College Consortium, although, I am authorized to say, not the present director.) But I cannot say that I have known much of the systematic and almost irrepressible hatred--what I will call the cold hatred--that daily works itself out here, in America, and around the world.

Real hatred, cold hatred requires, first of all, an idea. "I will avenge myself," I said in my own cold decision to kick dirt in Peter's face. I wanted to humiliate him. In ideologies of hatred the idea approaches the ruling force of an ideal because, in its hold on the will and imagination, it seems to drive away all other ideas--of restraint, of fairness, of the consequences for ourselves and, above all, for others of what we do and talk of doing.

In Ireland once, Adelia and I gave a ride to a little boy--stout and dark-haired with a square even face. "And what would you like to do when you grow up?" I asked. "I'd like to go up North to join the Provos," he told me. "And what would you do for them?" "Throw bombs and shoot the British," he said, with the earnest expression of any child picking out an admired profession to which he aspires.

Real hatred lasts in ways that love, by contrast, rarely can. It seems a much easier legacy to pass on to the young and the innocent. We have, most of us, as Swift once said, enough religion to hate, but not enough to love.

Real hatred seems to grow when the conditions favor it:

Powerlessness, even momentary powerlessness, abets hatred and allows it to flourish.

The great insight of constitutions is that no power should go without its check, and that unbalanced powers will allow passions, including hatred, to rule us in such a way as to destroy us. We believe in checks and balances because we beleive that no one in power can be trusted unchecked and without counter-balance. Given the power, each of us is capable, at the right time and under the right circumstances, of the greatest evils.

Ignorance seems as necessary for systematic, calculating hatred as oxygen is to fire. Moral ignorance bars us from fathoming the suffering of others, because we have reduced them--if only for a moment--to something less, and less important, than ourselves. Simone Weil, the French mystic, defined violence as whatever transforms human beings into things. Zygmunt Bauman, in his writings on the Holocaust, suggests that modern societies and bureaucracies may have a peculiar aptitude for distancing, for placing other human beings within the reach of our actions and decisions but outside the sphere of our sympathy and understanding.

Finally, fear feeds hatred: a fear nurtured in ignorance and aggravated by all the stray hostile emotions that plague us as a species. "You are different--in your customs, appearance, values; you have something that I want; you cannot be trusted with my family, my school or neighborhood, my land, my life." Nature has taught us to fear our differences; we must learn, sometimes against odds, to trust and value them.

 

* * * In the years that you have spent at college, we have all found new names for hatred as we have seen it triumph or flare near and far: sometimes it is as brief as the shouted or grafittied insult; sometimes it is as dangerous and destrucive as a bombing; in Rwanda it built and built as a conviction until people who were neighbors or even cousins turned on one another in murder. I will evoke here about only one of the names we now link to the ravages of a systematic and calculating hatred; that name is Bosnia.

We tend to make a romance of the land itself, because of its beauty, because of its suffering, and perhaps because, as Americans, we cherish what it seems to have once represented and now lost, probably forever: its tolerance of differences.

It is an important point of history to say that this romance, like most others, rests on a kind of distortion, a putting aside or forgetting of more uncomfortable realities.

Ivo Andric, the great Bosnian novelist, has a fictional diplomat describe what he calls "this cramped, hilly, starveling patch of ground:"

 

There are four religions living [here]. Each of them is exclusive and keeps strictly apart from the others... And each of them considers that its own welfare and advantage are dependent on the ruin and decline of the other three religions and that the other three can only advance at its expense. And each of them has made intolerance the highest virtue...

The great image in Andric's work is that of the bridge, large or small, of wood or stone or iron. Bridges held his country together through winters, wars, the collapse of empires and the rise of new tyrannies. Bridges and roads united people whose remoteness was sometimes the only guarantee of tolerance.

In a beautiful prose poem about bridges, Andric enumerates the many kinds he admired during his long life in Bosnia: "Great stone bridges...their sharply chiselled lines worn down... Slender iron bridges, stretched from one shore to the other like a wire, shaking and resounding with every train that hurtles over them... Wooden bridges on the way into the little towns...whose furrowed planks sink and creak under the hooves of the village horses..." He particularly recalls the most impermanent and simple ones, "those tiny bridges in the mountains, nothing but a largish tree trunk or two logs riveted together, thrown across a wild stream that would be impassable without them." Sometimes twice in a year they are washed out, but the people thereabouts cut and lay down new ones.

All bridges, he says, are "equally worthy of our attention for they point out places where a man came across an obstacle and did not turn away, but overcame it and bridged it as best he could..."

 

* * *

Hatred, like the streams of Bosnia, can be bridged; and even where the bridges themselves go down--or are pulled down, like the beautiful stone bridge of Mostar--they can be rebuilt.

A college is in its way a bridge. We gathered you all here in your first year; from different places and with different notions, and we said little more than this: talk to one another, study alongside one another, meet on the bridges that are our courses, books, plays, laboratories. And you, like Andric's Bosnians, responded in many ways, not always perhaps the best ways--occasionally even in ways that may have been harmful to one another. But on the whole you got along; the bridge held.

Yesterday the Board of Trustees reaffirmed our policies on diversity and inclusion. "We affirm our goal," they said, "of fashioning the Amherst College community from the broadest and deepest possible range of talents that people of different backgrounds can bring to us." In the midst of national and international doubt about the value of inclusion--of integration--Amherst is a kind of Sarajevo: a place where the differences among us have themselves made up a kind of cirriculum, a course of study, a pathy of discovery. The Trustees explained our commitment to inclusion in these words: "We do [this] for the simplist, but most urgent, of reasons: because the best and the brightest people are found in many places, not few; because our classrooms and residence halls are places of dialogue, not monologue; because teaching and learning at their best are conversations with persons other than ourselves about ideas other than our own."

Whatever the fate of Bosnia, of the many Bosnias in which for a time at least tolerance has vanquished hate, remember the small wooden bridges that Andric praised. Let them be metaphors for your work and your life. Bridge the waters that rush down our human hills and threaten to cut us off from one another. Bridge hatred, in particular, and never despair if it washes out one bridge; build again the way the Bosnians have; build better, if you can, but above all build again.

Good Luck.

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